Love, Hope, Strength Taps Music Fans to Expand the Bone-Marrow Donor Registry

“Just scrub the insides of your cheeks like you’re brushing your teeth for a good twenty seconds,” said a smiling volunteer, handing out cotton swabs to attendees of the recent Underground Music Showcase.

That volunteer was working for the Love, Hope, Strength Foundation, a nonprofit that works to get people on the international bone-marrow donation registry. Representatives of the organization were at the UMS all weekend, repeating those same instructions to an ongoing stream of festival-goers, many of whom scraped their cheeks, signed forms and added their names to the list.

Love, Hope, Strength was co-founded in 2007 by Mike Peters, lead singer for the Welsh alt-rock band the Alarm. A two-time cancer survivor, Peters knows well the importance of finding donors for those suffering from leukemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anemia and various immune-system disorders. The charity, which is headquartered in Denver, has a single goal: to save lives by getting healthy people on the bone-marrow donation registry. Matches are extremely rare, so it’s important to have a large pool of donors for those in need of transplants. The foundation’s “Get on the List” campaign engages concert and festival crowds across the globe to find potential donors; recognized as “the world’s leading rock-and-roll cancer foundation,” according to its website (the group’s logo is even designed like a rocker’s tattoo, complete with a guitar in place of the staff on the caduceus symbol), LHS has gone to extraordinary lengths to grow the registry, even hosting a concert at a Mt. Everest base camp.

The process to get on the registry is simple and quick. Interested individuals just need to sign a couple of forms and swab the inside of their cheeks. The collected cells are sent off to a lab; if approved, the potential donor is put on the registry for life.

If there is a match, the donor will be notified, and Love, Hope, Strength will work with the recipient’s hospital to make sure that the donation process (which involves needles and blood but is not nearly as painful as you might think) goes smoothly.

Denver resident Whitley Teslow was volunteering at a stage at South by Southwest in 2014 when he signed up. “I wanted to do it for the longest time,” Teslow says. “I had seen them at various concerts.”

By November of that year, Teslow found himself in San Diego, getting a full physical to make sure he was clear to donate to a potential match. “It’s a very, very easy process,” he says.

The nonprofit does do some fundraising (proceeds are used for supplies, events and media), but the main focus is on raising awareness and making sure that healthy humans sign up for the donation registry.

“That’s our unique pitch,” says Katie Poppert, LHS vice-president of programs. “We don’t ask for money. We’re asking for cells.”

And the organization does just that at “pretty much every music event in Colorado,” says Poppert, noting that LHS has a residency at thirteen different Denver-area venues, which allows the group to set up donation and information tables at concerts throughout the year. But no single place has had a bigger impact for the foundation than Red Rocks Amphitheatre. “Red Rocks is literally the most lifesaving venue on the planet,” Poppert says.

Love, Hope, Strength has been setting up at Red Rocks shows for the past five years, and in that time, it has signed up thousands of donors and found more than 250 lifesaving matches. By season’s end, there will have been a Love, Hope, Strength booth at 82 shows this year. LHS even gets some time on stage during the Film on the Rocks series, when a spokesperson talks briefly about the organization and a PSA plays before the main event. On an average night at Red Rocks, about 150 people sign up.

The venue has been so crucial to the success of Love, Hope, Strength that the group’s annual major fundraiser has been moved there from Vail. The event, called Red Rocks Rocks, will take place on Saturday, September 26, and will feature a four-mile hike in Red Rocks Park and live music.

According to LHS tour manager Rob Rushing, festivals are extremely important to the cause because they draw major crowds. At Bonnaroo this year, 10,051 attendees were added to the registry. But the charity has a deep connection to Denver and to Colorado’s music scene, and festivals held here play a central role in its campaign.

“UMS is run by some of Love, Hope, Strength’s earliest supporters, and...we’re proud to attend every year,” says Rushing. “Riot Fest is run by a cancer survivor, and they go out of their way to ensure LHS amazing placement at Denver and Chicago shows. The amount of sign-ups and potential matches from the Riot Fests has been staggering.”

Interestingly, the decision to target music venues and festivals did not come about solely because Peters is a musician. As Poppert explains, “One of the reasons this has worked out so well is because young, healthy people go to music venues. That is the exact demographic that we need; the ideal age range is 18 to 27 for getting people signed up for the registry.”

Young, healthy people frequent concerts, and young, healthy bone marrow is needed to save lives. And musicians have been instrumental in spreading the word. Poppert says that when a musician mentions Love, Hope, Strength on stage, it often doubles the night’s registrations. Denver-based artists who have supported Love, Hope, Strength include the Fray, the Lumineers and A. Tom Collins. National artists include Michael Franti, who invites the organization to tour with him and always features it at his Red Rocks shows.

Love, Hope, Strength is so dedicated to its musical roots that it has even opened a venue in Denver. The LHS Lounge, as it has been dubbed, helps the organization do some fundraising while also providing musical entertainment.

“Once a month, the LHS Lounge gives local artists and some of our supporting national acts the opportunity to help us fundraise in a small, intimate setting,” says Poppert. “The Lounge allows fans, cancer survivors and others wishing to support our Get on the List campaign the unique ability to enjoy some live music for a great cause.”

The Lounge opened in 2014, though it went on a short hiatus when LHS moved its headquarters to a larger Denver location this year. Performers have included the Bunny Gang, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, the Royal, and U2 cover band Under a Blood Red Sky.
Poppert says at this point, the organization has become such a part of the music scene here that it’s more common to find people who have signed up than those who haven’t.

“A kid walked by me at Red Rocks last summer, and I asked if he was on the registry yet,” says Poppert. “He said, ‘I love music, I live in Colorado. How could I not be on the registry?’”
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Isa Jones is an editor in Jackson Hole; her writing has appeared all over the Internet and occasionally in print.
Contact: Isa Jones